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Fixing the Phoenix Suns

Eric Saar evaluates the Phoenix Suns and breaks down what it would take to turn the franchise around.

Eric Saar

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The 2015-16 Phoenix Suns season was marked by turmoil, injuries and one bright spot – Devin Booker.

The offseason started it all as Phoenix was “very close” to signing marquee free agent LaMarcus Aldridge according to his conversation with Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro. Aldridge went on to say, “It came down, neck and neck, between Phoenix and San Antonio. It wasn’t overplayed. That was accurate.”

Two factors came into play that made it a close decision between the Spurs and Suns, who after a disappointing season have missed the playoffs six seasons in a row. These factors included adding Earl Watson, who had a strong connection with Aldridge, and the surprising signing of Tyson Chandler for four years, $52 million. The signing was huge for Aldridge as he let it be known that he wanted to play with a true center like Chandler.

Unfortunately, in their attempt to facilitate the potential acquisition of Aldridge, management had to ship out Marcus Morris, Danny Granger and Reggie Bullock for a second round pick. This upset the Morris brothers to no end. They felt disrespected and until Markieff Morris was dealt to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline, a dense fog hung over the team.

The season started out pretty great as the Suns were 7-5 by November 20th. Then things went downhill. Phoenix was 11-14 on December 13th, then they went on to go 2-17, falling to 13-31 by January 21st. During that stretch, Eric Bledsoe went down with another season-ending injury, management fired Jeff Hornacek’s two main assistant coaches, Jerry Sichting and Mike Longabardi, and then they lost T.J. Warren to a season-ending injury. Then at the beginning of February, seeing the season was lost, they fired Hornacek and promoted Earl Watson to interim head coach.

From then on, the season was all about development. It certainly wasn’t about the playoffs as the Suns finished with a 23-59 record, the fourth-worst in the league only behind the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets.

Fortunately, there was a bright spot in Phoenix – and his name is Devin Booker. The 19-year-old was given a large role with Bledsoe and Warren injured, Morris traded, and Brandon Knight in and out of the lineup. Booker finished as the seventh-highest scoring teenage rookie ever and he would have finished much higher if he had played more in the first few months of the season.

To eventually get back to the playoffs, the Suns need to build the right way, assimilate talent that specifically fits together, develop continuity and chemistry and establish a sustainable culture of winning. It will take the right free agents and the right coach, a pursuit which could be hampered by the recent perception – and reality – of dysfunction regarding player and management relations in Phoenix.

*****

Hire the Right Coach

The Suns have a core of young talent that requires a tough, but personable coach that can create a culture of accountability and trust with his players. The Suns need a coach who understands the player development side and can put his young players in a position to succeed and develop. They also need to instill a culture of accountability and professionalism, especially after the Morris situation splintered the locker room this past season.

Interim head coach Earl Watson certainly has the trust and respect of his roster, who have voiced that they want him back on a permanent basis. The question with him is rotations and creativity on offense.

Phoenix should be a somewhat coveted coaching destination since they have some good, young players so it’s possible they could nab one of the bigger names being floated for current coaching vacancies. However, there will be stiff competition from teams like the Wizards and Timberwolves, among others. Tom Thibodeau would be a good acquisition, and would elevate the defense, but he’s probably looking to turn a fringe playoff team into a contender not a lottery team into a fringe playoff team. Scott Brooks is also a trendy coaching name and, like Watson, seems like a player’s coach, but may be in the same boat as Thibodeau in terms of what situation he’s looking for. Even Jay Wright, coming off a national championship at Villanova, has been linked to the Suns’ job.

The most important part of hiring a coach this offseason is finding someone that can create some synergy with his players and a culture of professionalism and accountability.

Utilize Cap Space Wisely

The Suns have gotten a couple meetings with marquee free agents (most recently Aldridge), but haven’t locked up a superstar recently. That trend may continue in the wake of the dysfunction seen in the Goran Dragic/Isaiah Thomas dilemma as well as the Markieff Morris/Marcus Morris debacle. With that said, you still have to make your pitch to Kevin Durant and other elite free agents, but keep in mind, the Suns will probably end up with a second or third-tier free agent.

Phoenix’s young core features Eric Bledsoe (26), Devin Booker (19), T.J. Warren (22), Alex Len (22) and Brandon Knight (24). Knight is talented, but it seems that Booker will be a better fit alongside Bledsoe in the starting backcourt (though in exit interviews, Knight said he doesn’t envision a change in his role). Booker (6’6) is taller than Knight (6’3), which is important on the defensive side playing alongside Bledsoe (6’1). Booker also seems to play better off the ball, while Knight is best with the ball in his hands, so it may be ideal to move Knight to the second unit. If he can accept the demotion, Knight would be a great sixth man off the bench, sparking the second unit as a starting quality point guard.

The Suns will have one max slot open to pay one of the mid-tier free agents this offseason. Whoever they acquire could easily be perceived as overpaid with the lack of elite free agents and so much money ready to be spent across the league. They’ll likely pick up P.J. Tucker’s partially-guaranteed $5.3 million and should re-sign stretch-four Mirza Teletovic (cap hold of $6.6 million) as he holds the record for most threes in a season off the bench in NBA history.

They could re-sign Jon Leuer if they aren’t able to upgrade via the draft or free agency, but that starting power forward spot is the position they need to target this offseason. Some players they could target are Ryan Anderson, Chandler Parsons (as a small-ball four) and Terrence Jones. They should also try and bring a player like Jared Dudley back into the fold. He’s a good three-point shooter, can play the three or the four and has a high basketball IQ. They also need to decide what to do with Archie Goodwin as well since they may bring in Bogdan Bogdanovic from overseas.

Also, there is the lingering issue of what to do with Tyson Chandler. While Chandler has had flashes of his former self, he certainly hasn’t lived up to the hype of his signing. However, he has been a good mentor to Alex Len and the rest of the team and to some extent he has served his purpose as a locker room leader. However, he is still a solid backup to Len, so unless a specific opportunity arises, there is no urgency to move him.

Nail the Draft

Regardless of who they end up getting in free agency, nailing the draft is crucial to rebuilding a team. The Suns have three picks in the first round this summer and where exactly they draft will not be decided until the draft lottery in May.

The Suns have the fourth-best lottery odds (11.9 percent at the number one pick) with their own pick and the Wizards’ pick is 13th (0.6 percent). They are also owed a first-rounder by the Cleveland Cavaliers that will be the 28th selection. The Suns have managed to land some nice pieces in recent drafts, so it’s fair to imagine them finding some nice young talent this year as well. If they manage to do so, they will solidify what is already one of the best collections of young talent in the league, which could quickly change the perception of this team.

*****

This offseason could be a big turning point for the Suns. However, there are a lot of ways this offseason could go, especially considering how many draft picks Phoenix has, how much spending power teams will have and the lack of talent to meet market demand in this year’s free agent class.

In Phoenix’s dream scenario, a top-level free agent like Durant would agree to join the team. However, Durant will be heavily-courted by the entire league essentially, so it doesn’t make sense to get hung up on that scenario. But the Suns could still do well by adding some reasonably-priced free agents, adding some exciting talent through the draft and building a culture of professionalism and accountability through a well-qualified head coach.

Not too long ago the Suns were considered to be one of up-and-coming teams in the NBA. With a good coaching hire, some solid finds in free agency and a strong draft, Phoenix can become one of those teams again rather quickly. Needless to say, the next few months are going to be extremely important for Phoenix.

 

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Failing Expectations

Expectations were extremely high for three teams entering this season. A variety of factors have derailed their trajectory but there may still be time to address their issues and turn their seasons around.

Chad Smith

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Every offseason presents the opportunity for organizations to revamp their rosters in hopes of improving their team for the upcoming season. Between the NBA Draft and the free agency period, executives are busy around the clock. The flurry of phone calls and internal discussions among management is key to molding the future.

But the league found itself in an unfamiliar position this past year with the delayed season, the playoffs in the Orlando “bubble” and a shortened offseason that went by in the blink of an eye. The first preseason game tipped off exactly two months after the final game of the NBA Finals. The turnaround was quick and complicated for everyone involved.

That said, several teams were able to capitalize on the abbreviated turnaround. The Phoenix Suns knocked it out of the park with the Chris Paul trade and signing of Jae Crowder. The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft and free agency, as Michael Jordan landed both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. The New York Knicks found success in the draft with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. The Brooklyn Nets added excellent role players in Bruce Brown and Jeff Green while re-signing Joe Harris, who has been worth every penny.

Some teams appeared as though they had hit a home run, only to see the ball being caught at the warning track. The hype and buzz surrounding these teams were well warranted at the time, but things just haven’t panned out for a variety of reasons. With the All-Star break finally here, these three teams would welcome the idea of hitting the “undo” button on their offseason moves.

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors find themselves sitting two games under .500 entering the All-Star break. While they are certainly not out of contention, they are a far cry from where most people thought they would be at this point. It began with a rocky start to the season, where they dug themselves a massive hole with a 2-8 record.

The crux of their struggles came with their frontcourt issues. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka took the Kawhi Leonard route from Toronto to Los Angeles in the offseason. Losing one of their big men hurt, but losing both of them was crippling. The signings of Aron Baynes and Alex Len looked okay on paper, but the fit could not have been worse. Toronto currently ranks dead last in rebounding as a team.

Toronto ended up waiving Len, while Baynes has seen his role reduced even more. Fortunately, the emergence of Chris Boucher and Norman Powell has helped the Raptors turn their season around. Draft picks Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris haven’t had a major impact, but Pascal Siakam finally snapped out of his bubble fog and Kyle Lowry is healthy once again as well.

One good thing that the Raptors were able to do in the offseason was retain their sensational guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto has seemingly turned things around over the past few weeks and, considering they are playing all of their home games 1,400 miles away from their arena, they are positioned for a much better second half of the season.

Dallas Mavericks

Last season, the Mavericks boasted the best offense in the entire league, led by MVP-candidate Luka Doncic. The goal for them in the offseason was to acquire a defensive presence that could get this team more balanced. It appeared as though they addressed that when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson. Unfortunately, that has not been the case early on.

Dallas was also looking for an upgrade at the center position, but they missed out. They ended up having to settle for bringing back Willie Cauley-Stein on a two-year deal for $8.2 million. As a team, the Mavericks rank 24th in rebounding. James Johnson has been a solid addition, but he alone was not nearly enough to upgrade their porous defense.

Kristaps Porzingis has been quite inconsistent this season, so it is difficult to know what they are going to get from him every night. He is nowhere near the defensive presence that he was during his time in New York. Richardson is the guy that Dallas has been waiting on to provide outstanding perimeter defense, but he too has been unable to piece it together on a nightly basis.

The Mavericks did not find anything in the draft and it seems as though, once again, Doncic is having to do everything for this team in order for them to have success. His 36.2 percent usage rate is the highest in the league and that doesn’t appear to be going down anytime soon. If you are going to give the keys to the entire offense to someone, he is a good choice but Dallas struck out in terms of giving their franchise player more help this season.

Atlanta Hawks

No team had won the offseason quite like the Hawks. The organization was able to surround its franchise player with truckloads of talent in free agency. They added elite shooters like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. They added key defensive guards in Kris Dunn and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. They even scored more talent in the draft, taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick.

Atlanta lost no players of significant value, either, as general manager Travis Schlenk added to his already loaded young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. The problem here is that there are just too many overlapping pieces.

The veterans that were brought in either haven’t been able to get on the floor or are taking up valuable minutes for the younger players, potentially stunting their growth. The workload has been spread thanks to their depth as they deal with all of the injuries but there is no chemistry on the floor. In a season where practice time is near non-existent, that is a real problem.

The Hawks hit the All-Star break in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a disappointing 16-20 record. The game is being played in their backyard, yet they don’t even have a player to represent them. And, in recent days, it’s gotten even worse; the team officially fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday, with Nate McMillan set to take over as interim coach.

Atlanta has played 36 games this season. Their nine best players have missed a combined 143 games. Not including Dunn, who hasn’t played all season, that number is still well over 100 games missed. This locker room is a mixed bag of players that lack leadership and desperately need guidance. Pierce wasn’t the answer and Vince Carter isn’t walking through those doors anytime soon.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – March 5

Two rookies have pulled away from the rest of the pack in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year award. Tristan Tucker breaks down how the rookie pyramid is shaping up halfway through the season.

Tristan Tucker

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The All-Star break is nearly upon the NBA, and the Rising Stars rosters were just announced with several rookies leading the charge. Two players have pulled away by a significant margin in recent weeks, with several first-year players making impacts on winning teams. Let’s take a look at how the rookie ladder has changed over the last two weeks.

1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: 1)

February was kind to the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, who’s ascended to another level of stardom in the NBA in just his first season. The rookie is averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during that span. Since Basketball Insiders’ last update to the rookie ladder, Ball put up a stretch of five 20-plus point games, including a 30-point showing against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 24-point, 12-assist game in Charlotte’s wild win over the Sacramento Kings.

One of the concerns surrounding Ball when he entered the league was his ability to knock down jump shots at an effective rate. The 6-foot-6 point guard has shattered those concerns with his recent play and knocked down 40.7 percent of his attempts from downtown in just under seven tries per game.

When Charlotte parted ways with Kemba Walker in the summer of 2019, it would’ve been far-fetched to imagine that the Hornets would be stacked at the point guard position in just two years. However, with Ball and Terry Rozier, the Hornets are looking at a legitimate shot at the postseason.

2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

Together with Ball, Haliburton has all but cemented this Rookie of the Year race as a two-party contest. It gets harder to not give Haliburton the top nod with each passing week; the rookie out of Iowa State is completely dominating off the bench for the Kings. Though he’s missed the last three games for Sacramento, Haliburton is averaging 17.4 points, 6 assists and 2.4 steals per game while shooting a very impressive 47.9/39.4/85.7 line in five games over the last two weeks.

Haliburton’s excellence extends beyond his scoring, as the Kings are 1.5 points better when Haliburton is on the floor. Furthermore, the 6-foot-5 guard boasts an assist percentage of 24.6, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all NBA players and a 1.33 assist to usage clip, which ranks in the 100th percentile.

The Kings have to feel good about their young core in spite of their record, especially with Haliburton earning Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors and a spot on the Rising Stars roster.

3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: 5)

Before the season, nobody would’ve guessed that the Knicks would be the fifth seed at the halfway point of the season. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and improved veteran play from All-Star Julius Randle and others have sparked the franchise’s turnaround. No player, however, is more synonymous with that spark of energy than Quickley.

Since the last ladder update, Quickley is averaging 13.5 points on a staggering 48.4 percent clip from deep. When the team acquired Derrick Rose, Quickley’s playing time was in the air, but the rookie’s resilience and determination have kept him in the lineup as he continued to exceed expectations.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 6)

Bey’s placement here should be representative of the overall fantastic job the Detroit Pistons have done with all of their young pieces. Bey is obviously playing great — more on that later — but other draftees Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee are playing phenomenally as well. Then there’s the case of resurgences in Josh Jackson — averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game — and Dennis Smith Jr., who was just acquired and posted a triple-double in a blowout win.

But, in a year that many thought would be a throwaway for the Pistons, especially with seventh overall pick Killian Hayes sidelined, Bey and the rest of the young corps along with Jerami Grant and company have stepped up and delivered exciting basketball to Detroit.

Over the last two weeks, Bey is averaging 11.7 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 37 percent from deep on just under eight attempts per game. If Hayes pans out, the 2020 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a turning point for the Pistons.

5. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 3)

If Edwards could hit shots at even a 45 percent clip, there’s little doubt that he would be running away with the scoring title of all rookies and perhaps the Rookie of the Year award itself. However, it continues to be a hindrance, as Edwards is shooting a horrid 32.8 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from 3 in the last two weeks.

It’s unfortunate that the shooting is so inconsistent, as he’s put together a string of four 19-plus points per game contests and several highlight-reel plays across the span of the last two weeks.

The last two weeks brought a lot of turmoil to light for the Timberwolves, with the team undergoing a head-coaching change, bringing in Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors to replace Ryan Saunders. But that’s not all, as Ricky Rubio recently voiced displeasure with the team’s performance and D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley continue to be out.

With all the drama surrounding Minnesota, it’s hard to envision any rookie seeing much success there. The fact that Edwards is able to put these high-scoring performances together at all is telling of how special a talent he can be.

6. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

Tate’s on-court production has dipped slightly in conjunction with the Houston Rockets’ losing streak, but the hyper-athletic forward is still giving it his all on a nightly basis. Look no further than the fact that the team is parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins for proof that Houston believes in Tate as a member of its future.

Houston plays better when Tate is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And with that comes rejuvenated energy from all points on the court. When Tate is on, the team’s offensive rebounding percentage increases by 8.1 percent, which ranks in the 98th percentile of the entire NBA. 

Even though the Rockets are in a slump, Tate is averaging 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field. Most recently, he enjoyed a double-double in James Harden’s return to Houston.

Honorable Mention: Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers (Not Ranked)

Okoro gets his first rookie ladder nod after the Cleveland Cavaliers saw a fantastic stretch in which the team won four straight games. During that span of time, Okoro averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while seeing season-best shooting figures of 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three.

The 6-foot-5 forward out of Auburn has played the second-most minutes of any rookie and has started in every game for the Cavs, a promising start to Okoro’s career. Okoro is also playing strong defense for a Cleveland team that desperately needs good defenders and his stock could rise as the weeks go on.

With a multitude of highlight-reel dunks, passes and plays in just the last two weeks, several rookies are making big impacts on teams in a year where young depth is crucial. While Ball and Haliburton are currently leading the race, don’t sleep on James Wiseman to make a resurgence, as he scored 14, 11 and 16 points, respectively, in his first three games since returning from injury. Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for the next rookie ladder to see how tight this competition gets!

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NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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